If only the large wooden cabinet near the center of the room could talk, imagine the stories it could tell. This is a recurring thought as I stand on the top floor of Montblanc’s Villeret facility – the erstwhile Minerva manufacture – in the pastoral St Imier valley of the Bernese Jura. These 45 odd drawers are filled with a cache of Minerva-signed Grand Feu enamel dials wrapped in little paper bags or tissue paper dating to the turn of the 20th century, movement base plates, chronograph levers and other components.
On a table nearby sits stacks of yellowing ledgers with sales records of watches sold by Minerva through the 20th century. A minute later, I stumble up on a blueprint for Caliber 17.29 – a chronograph movement developed in the 1930s - that served as the inspiration for the Montblanc’s exquisite modern-day Caliber 16.29. This Villeret facility, the crown jewel of Montblanc’s watch division, is a veritable shrine to Minerva’s and the wider St. Imier valley’s watchmaking tradition. It may be part of Montblanc now, but the manufacture upholds Minerva’s watchmaking legacy.
VILLERET IN ITS VEINS
The legend of the Swiss watchmaking industry was built around the watchmaking centers Geneva, the Vallée de Joux, Le Locle and the tiny hamlets that make up St. Imier valley. While Vallée de Joux focused on grand complications – minute repeaters and perpetual calendars – the companies that sprung up in the St. Imier valley and Le Locle were known for their chronographs and precision instruments, cue brands like Heuer, Breitling, Longines and Minerva.
Minerva’s story begins in 1858 when Charles-Yvan Robert and his brother Hyppolite Robert established H. & C. Robert, an etablisseur in the hamlet of Villeret, already home to Blancpain. The company was renamed ‘Robert Frères Villeret’ in 1878 when his sons Charles and Georges took over. An etablisseur model meant the company assembled pocketwatches using movements sourced from specialists.
What is clear is that the family was obsessed with Greek and Roman mythology - in 1886 the company started registering brands, first up was ‘Mercure’ (Roman God of Trade), ‘Minerva’ (Greek Goddess of wisdom) followed in 1887 and ‘Ariana’ (Goddess of color, daughter of Minos) a year later and then finally Tropic. Each brand had its own logo and product line and all carried the RFV (Robert Frères Villeret) logo - an arrow, a symbol, which would go on to become a signature of the brand.
BUILDING A REPUTATION
Minerva would produce its first in-house movement in 1903, Caliber 18-1, an 18-ligne (40.6 mm) example suited for pocketwatches. In 1908, Robert Frères Villeret produced its first chronograph caliber under the Minerva brand, the Caliber 19-9, and soon after the first Minerva pocketwatch chronographs and stopwatches hit the market.
By 1916, Minerva was among the first few manufactures to produce a stopwatch capable of measuring time accurately to 1/100th of a second. Minerva’s stopwatches and chronographs would go on to be used extensively in modern-day motor racing, equestrian sports, football, rowing and so on.
Minerva’s reputation as a maker of quality chronographs was further cemented in 1923 with the introduction of Caliber 13-20, a column wheel monopusher chronograph with the now iconic V-shaped bridge, a Breguet balance and 17 jewels. The Robert family relinquished control of the company during the Great Depression and Minerva was taken over by employees Jacques Pelot and Charles Haussener. Under their guidance, the company furthered its credentials as a maker of quality precision instruments and tool watches for the military.
It was under their watch (excuse the pun) that Minerva produced the Pythagore, a timepiece much admired by collectors. It was powered by Caliber 10-48, a remarkably attractive movement designed by Pelot’s nephew Andre Frey in 1943. Its bridges were designed using mathematical proportions defined by the Golden Ratio (1.618) attributed to Greek philosopher Pythagoras.
The company remained in the hands of the Frey family right through the second half of the 20th century. Thanks to its artisanal output – only produced watches in small batches – and stellar reputation, Minerva survived the Quartz Crisis that annihilated a good chunk of its peers in the industry. However times were still tough and in 2000, the Frey family sold the business to Italian investor Emilio Gnutti who along with master watchmaker Demetrio Cabiddu reinvented Minerva as a haute horology brand before selling it to the Richemont Group in 2006.